Manchester United signed Odion Ighalo because they messed up. Luckily, the striker doesn’t need to think about that.
Ahead of their FA Cup win over Derby on Thursday, Sky Sports asked Ole Gunnar Solskaer whether Odion Ighalo, a boyhood United fan, was “living the dream”.
It’s easy to see it that way. Since signing at the end of January, Ighalo has gone straight into the first-team squad and has three goals from two starts.
From relative obscurity in China, the 30-year-old has become one of the Premier League’s most talked-about players. Nobody saw that coming in mid-January.
But Solskjaer stressed that Man United isn’t the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“[Ighalo] is here on merit,” said the Norwegian. “He is here because he is a goalscorer and a different type of striker for us.”
The manager even hinted at a permanent summer transfer for the Nigerian, so easily has he settled in, both on the pitch and in the dressing room.
"There's no way Jesse is claiming that!"
"As long as my teammates believe in me, I have to keep going."
All smiles as Luke Shaw and Odion Ighalo react to Man Utd's win in the #EmiratesFACup
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 5, 2020
The truth, however, is that Ighalo is neither a lottery winner nor “here on merit”.
That would be attributing too much tenderness and, equally, too much shrewdness to a football club that rarely demonstrates either.
No, Ighalo is playing for United for two reasons.
One is the drastic lack of foresight that saw Romelu Lukaku — a top-class version of Solskjaer’s “different type of striker” — depart without being replaced. The other is whatever incompetence led to Marcus Rashford playing with a fractured back.
Fortunately for Ighalo and United, two calamitous wrongs have somehow made a right.
Ighalo’s desperation to succeed is plain to see.
In fact, it’s fast becoming the best thing to watch out for when United play. See Ighalo take up a good position in the box, then witness him throwing his arms in the air, dismayed, as a team-mate passes to someone else.
In the 65th minute of the game against Derby, we were treated to a classic of the genre, as Bruno Fernandes, himself a more orthodox success story, looked elsewhere.
But it’s this unusual determination that might just make a cult hero of the Nigerian.
In his first official interview with the club, Ighalo couldn’t stop smiling. Not only did he call the move a “dream come true”, he was at pains to point out that he really, honestly, truly had been a United fan his whole life.
He even took a dig at fellow footballers who throw around the phrase “dream come true” for whatever transfer their agent puts together.
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This was literally his life’s goal.
That might have been a factor behind the move, too. After all, the club’s other deadline day target, Josh King, is also a United devotee (and former academy graduate).
When that move collapsed, a disappointed King said, verbatim, that it would have been a “dream come true”.
There’s a kernel of logic behind signing a player who supports your team.
You know they’ll try hard, and fans will warm to them — even if they’re a 30-year-old loan signing with one goal in their previous 18 Premier League appearances.
On the other hand, it’s clearly a mind-meltingly stupid way to run one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
Remember Rickie Lambert at Liverpool? He was chuffed, yes, but you have to say he was worse than boyhood Everton fan Michael Owen.
Owning the club pyjamas doesn’t automatically make you fit to wear the shirt.
Nor, incidentally, does a record of 10 goals in 19 appearances for Shanghai Shenhua. If that gets you to United “on merit”, then Shin-wook Kim can book his stay at the Lowry right now.
Yet despite the string of errors that led to his transfer, Ighalo looks like he might just be a success.
His first goal against Derby was scrappy and a little fortunate, but the finish was excellent.
The second was even better. Ighalo’s hold-up play brought Juan Mata into the picture, and though the Nigerian’s first shot from Mata’s cross was blocked, his second was unstoppable.
The brace also seemed to settle the Nigerian’s nerves. Two minutes after scoring his second, he had a chance for a hat-trick but instead took the unselfish option, laying the ball off for Mata.
Ighalo is desperate to score, but he’s not going to throw his arms in the air every time.
Come the end of the season, we might be in the strange position of saying that Ighalo has been a resounding success at United but that the decision to sign him was still a bad one, that Ed Woodward remains incompetent.
Did the chief executive really expect goals from his bargain-basement find? If he did, then he’s an optimist, not a mastermind. (And has he seen Lukaku’s recent form?)
But this transfer accident, this culmination of failures from the boardroom to the physio room, could really work out.
It’s as though the low expectations around Ighalo, coupled with his likeableness and humility, have generated an unexpected amount of goodwill for him.
Maybe every fan in a replica shirt thinks they could be next.
Most importantly though, with Ighalo’s love of the club reciprocated from the terraces, perhaps he’ll succeed where more talented players have failed.
If he does? Praise him, not United.